By Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose (yes, I’m serious). Let the breath out slowly through your mouth. Repeat this action twice and with each cycle of breath feel your mind start to quiet. Turn your gaze inward and take a moment to answer the following question:
What inspires your Jewish practice?
Judaism is hardly a passive way of life and demands that we act with intention through the range of practices we choose to take on. There are laws, customs, and behaviors related to prayer, holiday observance, cooking and eating, self-care, tending to the environment, and how we relate to other human beings and to God. As an active Jew and a committed Jewish professional I know that I must ignite my motivation and passion for Jewish living and learning each day that I wake up. To press “snooze” is not really an option. My ability to sustain my practice is dependent on my ability to collect and tap into a healthy supply of energy and heat for why I find Judaism a meaningful way of life. When I have clarity on what inspires and motivates me about Judaism I flow naturally through my practice and feel a sense of confidence in my work.
What is the source of inspiration? I want to suggest that the answer is not found in numbers. While our tradition is marked by a custom of counting (censuses in the Torah, eight nights of Chanukah, seven days of the week, six orders of the Mishnah, five books of Torah, four Matriarchs…), I worry that too often Jewish leaders rely on numbers to motivate actions or to dominate our conversations about Jewish life – statistics on the Jewish population, fundraising targets, enrollment/attendance reports in organized activity. The numbers in Jewish communal service and education are important, but not a sustainable and ultimately compelling source of motivation.
There are a couple of reasons why we might gravitate towards quantifying rather than qualifying our Jewish practice. Items that can be counted – people, behaviors, dollars – are often visible. It can appear easier to count and to stand behind these data as objective. Socio-psychologist Dr. Bethamie Horowitz (2015) cautions against our over reliance on the counting approach as evidence of vibrant Jewish life:
… the main way of defining and tracking the Jewishness of American Jews by the organized Jewish communal world has been to focus on adherence to traditional or conventional Jewish practice, without a more direct consideration of the person’s own experience, understanding or motivation. The phenomenon of what being Jewish means to the individual has typically not been investigated. We don’t learn much about why people do these things and how they feel about it.
Horowitz’s wisdom underscores the importance that we take a step back from the questions of “What is your Jewish practice?” or “What are the numbers (behaviors, enrollment, etc.) you aspire to achieve?” and pivot towards questions of “What inspires your Jewish practice?” and “What does being Jewish mean to you?”
The answer to the question of what inspires or motivates Jewish practice can be found in the idea of Tapas. Many of us know of tapas as an array of hot and cold small plates in Spanish cuisine. While trendy food can be inspirational, I’m referring to the Sanskrit definition of Tapas, meaning “fire,” and which conjures the image of an internal flame that motivates action. I draw this concept from the philosophy of yoga, a mind-body-soul practice that is quite complementary to Jewish practice. In yoga Tapas is the determination and discipline that fires us up about our goals and dreams. Reverend Constance Habash (2007) explains:
When we undertake the practice of yoga, or any spiritual practice, the flame of Tapas needs to burn brightly within us if we are to achieve anything more than a little light exercise. Tapas helps us through the uncomfortable sensations, motivates us to try difficult maneuvers, and also pulls in the reins when we become a bit full of ourselves or risk injuring our body. Without that inner discipline and determination, we’d be unlikely to look at the finer practices of yoga that, through rigorous self-awareness, bring inner peace and open us to greater oneness.
The idea of Tapas is just as relevant to Jewish practice as it is to yoga, and both learners and leaders can benefit from this concept. As Jews we need the flame of Tapas to continually embrace and embody the dimensions of our practice that we enjoy, to confront the ideas, rituals, and customs with which we struggle, and to take risks. Tapas is a universal concept that can benefit Jews of all ages and circumstances, from younger to older people, singles to couples, and those born into Judaism to those who choose it. The value of Tapas is particularly poignant for leaders who steward others towards Jewish practice. I find that the most inspiring Jewish leaders are leaders who are authentically inspired by Judaism.
The idea of Tapas is vividly pronounced as we recall the story of our tribe during Chanukah. Confronted with religious oppression and a desecrated Temple, the Maccabees led a revolt against the army of Antiochus IV. Beating the odds, the Macccabees won and our holiday celebration draws its roots in the legend that enough oil was found to keep the flames of the Menorah lit for eight nights. It seems to me that the heat of Tapas filled the Maccabees with clarity on their sense of Jewish self, motivated them to action. Tapas is a midrashic explanation for why that Menorah shined brightly for an astounding eight nights.
I think it can be easy to draw on Tapas in the face of oppression when the flame of our inspiration is (literally!) threatened. The bigger challenge is to maintain positive heat whether in a state of threat or strength. Many of us who struggle with self-discipline know that the more regular you are in your practice – exercise, friendships, writing, diet, playing an instrument, working on a puzzle – the more likely you are to sustain the practice and to elongate from strength to strength. Getting started, or igniting an extinguished flame, is way more difficult.
It is fitting for us as Jewish leaders to take a moment during Chanukah for self-reflection: Do I have enough oil stored to sustain the light of my own Jewish practice? If my answer is “yes,” what is the source of that inspiration? It is easier to see that source clearly when the flask is full and to imprint it on your mind and soul for when the flask starts to run low. If the answer is “no,” what steps must you take to reignite the flame?
The responsibility for Jewish leaders to cultivate and protect their inner flame is shared:
- Funders, lay leaders, and senior professionals can allocate the gelt of time, encouragement, and funding to enable Jewish leaders to be active in their personal Jewish practice.
- As Jewish leaders we must accept ultimate responsibility for our inner flame. That means using our resources, however robust or limited they might be, to claim space for our Jewish practice and to be reflective practitioners about the meaning of Judaism in our lives.
Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary and a certified yoga instructor. Previously he served as camp director for Camp Ramah in California, and as a teacher in day and congregational schools.
Habash, C. (2007). Igniting Tapas. Awakening Self. from http://awakeningself.com/writing/igniting-tapas-discipline/
Horowitz, B. (2015). The importance of meaning making and navigation in understanding contemporary American Jews. The Meanig of Meaning in Jewish Education. Jewish Theological Seminary. New York, NY.